When a person’s basic human needs are at stake, such as those involving their home, income, health care, or children, a lawyer can help protect what matters most. But in the United States, there is no federal right to state-funded counsel in civil cases. While all states provide a right to counsel for some types of civil cases by either statute or court decision (or both), the laws are patchwork and incomplete. Consequently, roughly 80 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income individuals go unmet, and half of those who seek assistance from civil legal aid organizations are turned away due to lack of resources.
At the same time, low-income individuals routinely face opponents (the government, landlords, banks, and so on) who are represented. Studies have shown that this disparity in representation leads to unbalanced outcomes, and that the presence of counsel dramatically improves a person’s chances for success while saving money for cities and states by avoiding negative outcomes, such as the use of homeless shelters, emergency medical care, unemployment, and foster care.
As the operator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC), the Public Justice Center supports efforts across the country to establish the right to a lawyer for low-income individuals in civil cases involving basic needs. The NCCRC provides significant technical, research, and writing support to over 300 coalition participants and 200 partners in 40 states, maintains the national clearinghouse of information on civil right to counsel, and engages in public advocacy and awareness throughout the country.
Visit the NCCRC website, civilrighttocounsel.org, for the latest about right to counsel developments from across the country.
The movement for a right to counsel in eviction cases has reached a seminal moment: New York City, San Francisco, and Newark now guarantee tenants a lawyer when their housing is threatened, and NUMEROUS other cities and states have introduced bills to do the same. The NCCRC provided and continues to provide extensive support to these campaigns.
In a groundbreaking decision, a New Jersey trial court held the state must appoint counsel prior to suspending a person’s driver’s license for inability to pay child support. This was the first decision in the nation to recognize a right to counsel in the driver’s license suspension context. The NCCRC worked closely with the plaintiff’s attorney on the case over several years.
In another NCCRC-assisted case, a different New Jersey court held that parents are entitled to appointed counsel in administrative proceedings to determine whether children have been abused and/or neglected. This is one of the first-ever decisions to recognize a right to counsel in the administrative context.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court held that defendants facing incarceration for failure to pay fees and fines have a right to appointed counsel. The NCCRC filed an amicus brief in the case.
NOTE: The NCCRC cannot assist individuals with representation, legal advice, or attorney referrals. Therefore, we do not respond to individual requests for assistance. Please contact the legal aid organization in your state or your state’s attorney referral program.